Once upon a time, there was a newspaper in Colorado that asked for the list of candidates who were applying for the city manager's position.

All was well and there was plenty of mutual respect between the newspaper and the city. In fact, it was a very good relationship. But the newspaper took seriously its duty to request the information and to do its own independent review of those interested in the position.

After all, this new city manager would be nothing less than a king or queen of sorts, with far too much power to be unveiled only at the midnight hour.

The newspaper wanted to ask why there were so many applicants, or why so few.

It wanted to know more about any person applying for so much power and influence in the local area.

It wanted to ask how wide a range of experience was represented in the stack of applications, and perhaps review whether the city was paying enough for the caliber of applicants needed.

It wanted to see if there were any interesting surprises to be found.

There were.

It turns out that while the city was calling references and looking at the work experience with some of the candidates, the newspaper decided to check with journalism colleagues at the hometown newspapers of a few candidates. It was one of those reporter-to-reporter type of chats where one helped the other, just to see if everything was as presented; on the up-and-up, so to speak.

It wasn't.

The newspaper discovered something that one candidate somehow managed to hide from the city.


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Something, like, say, a history recorded in newspaper clippings of nothing but strife within the ranks during his previous management.

Something, like, say, a problem with child pornography that didn't make the criminal record but certainly made the public record.

The story was published.

The journalistic duty was fulfilled.

And the newspaper and city lived together happily ever after.

More or less.

***

The Farmington city government was in the wrong Thursday.

This newspaper, despite whether it is a popular move or seen as a sensational play for good story, as if we needed help finding those here, plans to correct at least one of the wrongs committed by the city.

The 72 or more applications for city manager are public record.

We intend to get those applications, and every one of them yet to come, and we intend to review them in our own independent examination because of the magnitude of importance tied to the job of city manager. We would be quite the softball newspaper if we shrank from our investigative duties such as this only because we refused to make an applicant or two uncomfortable.

In our opinion, if they want the job of city manager, then meeting the job description should start with the application.

That means, if you're shy about applying not for a private industry job, but for a top, senior-level government job that answers to the taxpayer, then there is no room for you in this city to be keeping secrets.

If your very application should be kept secret, then what is next?

So the argument of not being nice to the applicant falls on deaf ears here. There most certainly is a different obligation tied to managing a city the size of Farmington than managing a private business, and we do not plan to wait and ask questions of the final 10 candidates after the city tells us it has done all the asking necessary of the other 62 candidates on the list.

No disrespect to the city, and certainly none intended to the honorable group of residents asked to serve on a selection committee. But then, we'd like the same level of respect, and to be trusted to do our job as well.

Critics with city government and supporters of the city have called us arrogant for even asking for the applications. One councilor said he is frustrated with the newspaper and disappointed that it chose to make such a matter a story. Other councilors chimed in with agreement.

Yet, for anyone to assume we have no business seeking what we consider to be public record open to anyone, or to assume we can do no good with it, or to suggest we simply want to pick a fight... is of ignorance and arrogance themselves.

Who keeps an eye on government, even when that government is a popular or highly effective government?

The Fourth Estate.

There is a reason they call us that. The media is the only consistent watchdog of the judiciary, legislative and executive branches of government. We come in as the fourth, unofficial but certainly necessary branch.

We love our democracy. That's why we want to make darn sure we do our job to help protect it.

Secrecy, of any kind, is our enemy.

***

Apparently, the city leadership is being told by its legal counsel that the applications are not public record, and that is unfortunate.

We don't know for sure because the only thing the city attorney told our reporter was that he backed the administration's stand, which was to tell us the city felt a previous attorney general's opinion allowed it to withhold the material.

First, we can find in the law books no such opinion, only a case sample of what was done by another entity.

But more importantly, we hand-delivered legal references to a case that already was tried in court on this very issue. In that case, not only did the city of Carlsbad get ordered to give the local newspaper the applications as required by law, but the court also required the city pay almost $15,000 to cover the newspaper's court costs for having to fight to get what should have been provided all along.

That $15,000, by the way, is taxpayer money.

The Daily Times is prepared to go all the way on this one, and we are trying our best to inform you the public, and you the taxpayer, that your city representatives are going to cost you money if they can't be persuaded to obey the law.

Do we enjoy that?

Don't be ridiculous. We have done more than our fair share here at the newspaper to try and help this city with its image, as the city's image and our image are closely tied. We have participated in many meetings, some called by the city and some by us, in trying to find ways to promote positive things instead of the negative that life dictates will always occur.

Positive things like new policing initiatives, public programs and arts achievements; heck, we've even created an entire section-front page once a week dedicated to Arts & Leisure to focus on nothing but positive news.

We will not, however, back down from this. We will continue the fight for open government, and in large part because this government has challenged us so many times before about what should be open for all to see and what should be kept secret.

For example, we have another lawsuit already drawn up and ready to file against the city over its continued refusal to release to us records of complaints filed against the police department. How can you ever provide our police force relief from public scrutiny, especially during trying times when its job already is so difficult, if you continue to throw a veil of secrecy over it?

That case is pending. Why? Because we at the newspaper felt after such a contentious summer last year with racial and cultural divides drawn, there were too many other fights more deserving of attention. We wanted to do our best to help in the effort to promote calm and unity. Thus, we sat on it.

Not this time.

These are but two examples of where we feel our city leadership is receiving poor legal advice.

Take that for what it is, but understand clearly that while the city has the power to govern us, this newspaper has the power to challenge it when it knows there are wrongs still not righted.

The city has the chance now to prove if it is indeed an open government, and it has the chance now to review its legal position.

In the case of city manager, which is more important to our leadership: representing the applicants or representing the people?

To say both when the gauntlet has been thrown down in this debate is nothing but fence-stradling.

***

Ah, but yes, what about that image?

Last summer was a disaster for Farmington. You simply can't put perfume on a skunk and expect it to smell better.

Last summer, we stank, and I do mean a collective we.

White folks beat up a Navajo man in one headlined incident, but that was one too many while others claimed we don't have problems here anymore.

Navajo folks pointed fingers but failed to share the burden of what they can do to improve, such as helping with the problem of drunks on the street. For every white person who criticized the newspaper for writing race stories, there was a Navajo criticizing us for ignoring them.

The police department's image was a disaster, and I personally hate this because every officer I've met is nothing but a top-notch professional. But the city failed miserably in taking control of this image and righting the ship.

Since last summer?

Huge strides; huge. Meetings with the Navajo, public meetings with the police and a new police chief, meetings with the newspaper, new open-government policies were proclaimed, and there was indeed a progressive movement toward unity, and image, that promised great and positive things for the coming spring and summer; much different from a year ago.

And now?

Well, like us or not for doing it, we plan to write even the tough stories, because we're trained to believe that spilled milk doesn't get cleaned up until you see it. Call me arrogant, or call me dedicated, but please call me.

And now?

The City Council and city administration has the next move. We at the newspaper have a tremendous amount of respect for our police, for our city manager, and for our City Council.

We also have a tremendous amount of respect for the law, and more importantly, yes, much more importantly, for the intent of the law.

We ask that our city government release public records to the public, and help us all to get back on track for making this city one that is clearly open to every culture, open to every business dreamer, open to every educational opportunity, and open in its government. The latter includes opening the books to who all wants to be the next chief of this operation, and it shouldn't take the threat of a lawsuit to do it. We should want to share such important information because, well, because openness is what this city is all about.

And now?

It's the city's next move.

Troy Turner is the editor of The Daily Times. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 450, Farmington, N.M. 87499; or at tturner@daily-times.com.